Medieval Painting

Types of Painting


Fresco Painting

Giotto. Crucifixion. Lower Church of S.Francesco, Assisi

The term Fresco is used to describe a painting made on a wall.

The word fresco means fresh in Italian and a true fresco (Italian: buon fresco) was one that was painted onto plaster while it was still wet. Working in this way the pigments, mixed usually with water, would chemically bond with the plaster and provide a long-lasting finish which is resistant to damage.

Because the artist required damp plaster to create buon fresco, and as plaster quickly dries, the following was a common method of working.

The artist would create a sketch of the final design and use this to outline the main parts of the fresco on the bare wall. The image on the wall is called a Sinopia. To ensure the image was upright it was usual to attach a dusty string to the top of the wall and to add weights to the bottom of the string so gravity would find a true vertical. The string was then tensioned and released like the string of a bow, to make a vertical line on the wall, horizontal lines could then be found by drawing lines at right angles to these.

With the sinopia in place the painter could identify which parts of the image they would work on each day. This might be affected by the need to build scaffolding to get to various parts of a high wall, or by the colours the artist planned to use. A plasterer would then, guided by the sinopia, add a giornata (day’s worth) of intonaco (fine plaster) to the selected areas. These would then be painted. This process of adding a layer of intonaco and then painting on this layer would be repeated until the work was completed. Once the plaster was dry application of pigments which would change colour if applied a fresco, addition of gold leaf, or  the correction of any problems, could take place by applying paint over the top of the buon fresco image. Working this way is called fresco secco (dry fresco).

Historical perspectives

Unlike medieval panel paintings, which have frequently changed location through their lives, perhaps starting up on a church altar, then demoted to a less important location when artistic fashions have changed, perhaps later being sold to a private collector and finally ending up in an art gallery, most frescoes, as they became part of the structure of the building, remain in the place where they were made. Many written contracts concerning the arrangement made between an artist and a patron exist in archives and due to the reasons listed above, it can be frequently easier to associate a contract to a fresco than to a panel painting.

It should be noted that fresco painting is more easily found in Italy than in many northern European countries and there are two reasons for this. Firstly the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, with its distrust of religious art led to the destruction of many frescoes and the, generally, plain white walls of Protestant churches. Secondly the Gothic tradition of church building tended to encourage the creation of stained glass windows which colour the light within the church. While it is not impossible to find churches with both fresco cycles and stained glass (S.Francesco in Assisi, Italy is an example) it is generally the case that the coloured light of stained glass can best be appreciated on bare walls and that the coloured painting of a fresco is best observed in light that has entered through clear windows.

Where a fresco did become unfashionable or unsuitable for its purpose these were frequently concealed with a layer of whitewash. This is quite simple to remove and many frescoes have been rediscovered in this way.

As subsequent parts of the plastering overlap the earlier parts slightly an art restorer can often work out how many “days” work were involved in painting any particular fresco and this has been used to date works when other information about the activities of that painter are known.

In some cases frescoes have been removed from their original walls, often because damp, or other environmental factors are causing the images to become damaged. Here the intonaco is removed from the wall and fixed to another backing. Where this has happens frescoes have sometimes been moved from their original location.